“I’m not leaving my wing man!”
Tom Cruise, aka “Maverick,” uttered these words at the end of “Top Gun.” When the chips were down the hotshot pilot finally balanced discipline and discourse, and the result was his greatest moment.
Maverick learned his lesson largely thanks to Val Kilmer’s “Iceman,” the guy who would never win a popularity contest but ended up hoisting the Top Gun trophy because he never made a mistake.
With all due respect to NASCAR’s original Iceman, Terry Labonte, Jimmie Johnson plays that role these days. And Sunday Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports wing man, Dale Earnhardt Jr., pushed him to Victory Lane at Talladega.
Junior’s winless streak reached 101 races following Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, but he’s now third in the Sprint Cup standings. In the offseason Rick Hendrick made a major switch, putting Junior’s and Johnson’s operations in the same shop. While Hendrick claims that the idea was to improve all the teams, the objective was obvious. It was a last-ditch attempt to salvage the career of Junior, who in his fourth year with Hendrick has won only one race and has failed to make the Chase the last two seasons.
It’s working out pretty well so far. Maybe Johnson’s legendary fitness regimen has more of a chance to rub off on Junior, who for so long limited his workouts to 12-ounce curls from former sponsor Budweiser.
The irony, though, is what Junior can do for Johnson, and not just in the draft. Two people driving for the same owner doesn’t necessarily equate to camaraderie. (Take the regular bloodletting that was Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman during their Penske days as an example.)
But “Top Gun” concluded with Maverick and Ice Man embracing. Maverick’s talent was finally confirmed, and Ice Man was no longer looked at as a stick in the mud.
Johnson may be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, but winning five consecutive titles hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the fans. For the first time, though, Johnson and Earnhardt are truly looked at as teammates by NASCAR’s fan base after working together so well. Don’t be surprised if that earns Johnson some appreciation after being labeled as a stiff who has done nothing but stink up the show.
To a large degree, that perception is unfair. Geez, the guy broke his wrist doing some golf cart surfing after winning his first title.
Maybe Johnson can help Junior get his first championship. And Junior can help Johnson be looked at as more of an everyman than an elitist.
The idea of teammates is to balance strengths and weaknesses. Hendrick, who has always been lauded for his ability to put people together, may have another hit on his hands.